Every year, during the third week of November, Operation Christmas Child collects millions of shoeboxes from families across the country. Each box collected will be processed and given to a child in need in countries around the world. It’s become a passion project for Samaritan’s Purse CEO Franklin Graham, and one that continues to have tremendous impact for the Gospel.

But this year, things are a little different.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed things up, with social distancing, masks and lockdowns impacting families, businesses and ministries across the country.

This has also been a challenge for Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse. The ministry collects shoeboxes packed with hygiene items, school supplies, a “wow” gift and oftentimes includes a letter from volunteers in the U.S. and other countries. The boxes are then sent to impoverished children around the world. So far, the ministry has sent more than 178 million shoebox gifts to 160 countries. This year is no different, and Rev. Graham believes it may be the greatest yet.

“It’s different, but it doesn’t stop us, it doesn’t hold us back,” Rev. Graham said in an interview with The Daily Citizen. “If anything, we need more shoeboxes this year than ever because the children of the world are scared, afraid and have been affected by this COVID-19 lockdown. I just think we need more shoeboxes, not less, and so the challenge is collecting boxes while being responsible.”

To ensure the safety of staff and volunteers, Operation Christmas Child has instituted non-contact drop-off opportunities for those that have packed their own boxes. For individuals and families that are unable to get out, due to either illness or vulnerability, there is also the Build a Shoebox Online program, which can help people share the love of Jesus Christ with a boy or girl in another country without leaving their home. In a post-COVID world, this option has exploded.

“This year we’ve found a 600% increase in online boxes,” Rev. Graham shared. “Last year we had 25,00 shoeboxes built online. This year, we’ve had close to 190,000 shoeboxes that have been done online. We’re still going to meet our goals, but it’s going to come to us differently.”

Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse

To collect all the shoeboxes and ensure that every shoebox has what it needs, Operation Christmas Child sets up processing centers across the country in what’s called National Collection Week. This is where volunteers examine each box to make sure there are no counterfeit items, like chocolate that can melt, or to include hygiene and other items that the packer may have missed. Volunteers who come to those centers are dedicated, often coming year after year to serve.

But like everything, this year is a bit different, but many are even more excited to serve and get out.

“The volunteers, they’ve been in lockdown and they’re excited about getting out and looking forward to it. I think this year is going to be special for the volunteers,” Rev. Graham. “Family groups can work together—you have to have social distancing from other groups. If a church group comes together, they have to work together. We’re going to take everyone’s temperature and have hand sanitizing stations everywhere. It is what it is, but I’m pretty sure we can get to our goals this year.

“We also want to pray that God will protect us. These boxes are for the children of the world, and churches overseas are depending on these boxes for evangelism, we’d hate to be unable to provide them.”

After the boxes are packed and processed in the states, they are sent to various countries throughout the world and distributed through ministry partners on the ground. It’s a way evangelical Christians can impact children and families for Christ, especially with unreached people groups. COVID has impacted this process, but will not stop it.

“So much of the world was locked down, but most of Africa is open again. There are just a couple of countries in South America that are still closed down, but others have opened,” Franklin said. “Where the doors are open, we’re going to walk through them. We’re going to have the shoeboxes ready. For those countries that are closed, we’re going to hold them and send them in when they’re ready because the children are expecting them, and the churches are expecting them. We’re going to continue the ministry.”

It’s a complex process, and Rev. Graham encourages people to pray.

“I think the most important aspect of Operation Christmas Child is prayer,” Rev. Graham said. “We ask people to pray. Pray for the child that’s going to get the box.

“People will ask me, ‘Franklin, where will my box go?’ I don’t know. It’s going somewhere, but there are 100 plus countries out there, I can’t track everyone’s box. But God can track them, and I ask people to pray. I believe if you have 11 million people praying for children, we know God hears and answers the prayer of one righteous person. He hears prayer. Can you imagine 11 million people praying not for themselves, but for children outside their family and around the world? I think God will hear those prayers and answer them.”

Photos by Brittany Raymer

Though the pandemic is a unique challenge, it won’t stop the ministry from sharing the Gospel with children in impoverished situations throughout the world.

“I think we’ll see another incredible year,” Rev. Graham said. “In the middle of a pandemic, when so many people are shutting down, I believe God is going to open up a great door for ministry. And not just ministry, but spiritual harvest. I think people are afraid and people are scared, and what an opportunity to reach out to children and love them in the middle of a pandemic.”

One church in Texas is taking this desire for a spiritual harvest to heart. An incredibly small congregation, they usually collect about 11,000 shoeboxes in a year. This year, they’ve made it a goal to collect over 12,500. They’ve already surpassed that and have collected 12,617.

“It’s an incredibly little church,” Franklin said. “This year, they decided that they were going to do another 1,000 boxes. Right now, we’re collecting boxes, and when you see that kind of excitement and that kind of joy coming from one tiny little church, who’s going to double what they did last year, it just encourages ya. When you see what people are doing and how people sacrifice and how people give. How children sacrifice and give to children around the world. To me, it’s just a God thing.”

As one of his favorite ministries, Rev. Graham usually participates in at least one distribution a year.

“The joy of seeing these kids get boxes, the excitement, the joy, the thrill. To see churches using these boxes for evangelism. I think that’s the greatest joy, seeing how the churches have bought into evangelism and using this gift as a way to give it to children in their community so they can reach their community for Christ,” Rev. Graham shared.

“I think, in the middle of the pandemic, Operation Christmas Child can have its greatest year of ministry.”

In 2015, I had a chance to go on an Operation Christmas Child distribution trip as part of my ministry role. It was amazing to see families and communities come together for this one event, and they could not be more grateful for the opportunity to receive such incredible gifts and hear the Gospel.

Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse